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Dan Sollom | Gamble Sands: A focus on fun

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World photo/Don Seabrook The second hole at Gamble Sands golf course near Brewster is a reachable par-4 overlooking the Columbia River.

I was excited to be invited to play the newest golf course in the Northwest, Gamble Sands, just a few miles north of Brewster, on Friday. This event was held for VIPs and media one day before the course opened for public play. (I don’t know which of those two groups I belong, so I’ll just presume both.)

The day started around 11 a.m., with a western barbecue and speeches from management, ownership and course designer, David McLay Kidd. I was struck by the words of Cass Gebbers as he emotionally spoke to the support of fire evacuees in the Methow Valley and the work his family put forth in an effort to pay attention to the suffering and the hardship of their neighbors. The golf event seemed to take a back seat to what was really important on that day. In fact, Cass came to the event directly from the fires in jeans, work shirt and boots. This guy is the real deal.

Kidd was the last to speak to the 80-plus players by pointing out that his goal was to design and build a world class layout that emphasized fun versus challenge. He observed that the “missing” element in golf today was fun. So he made the fairways wide, the greens accessible and the topography breathtaking. Check, check and check. Mission accomplished.

According to a recent segment on HBO’s “Real Sports,” 130 golf courses have closed nationwide every year for the last eight years. In the United States, a golf course closes every 48 hours. Golf retail is off by double digits in the last three years and television ratings for golf’s biggest tournaments are in steady decline for the past two years. America has lost 5 million golfers in the past 10 years. In other words, golf is in trouble.

The consensus is that the game is too expensive, too time consuming and too hard to play. So why did the Gebbers family get into the business of golf when they are one of the largest producers of fruit in the world and the future of golf looks so bleak? According to Cass, the family’s goal is to diversify and to contribute to the social and economic base of the Brewster region.

In fact, future phases for development include a world class destination resort high above the town of Brewster to include another golf course (the first three holes are already in) and a five-star resort hotel with all the amenities. It’s a giant vision, and if there are doubters out there on its completion and eventual success, my money is on the Gebbers. This family knows how to make it work.

After the ceremonial first tee shot by Kidd, we were finally off to play the only new course to open in Washington in 2014. In my group were two golf journalists from southern Oregon and a longtime writer from the Methow Valley News. We started on hole No. 11 and spent the next four hours making our way to the 10th and final hole of our round. Gamble Sands is a links style course. By definition, links golf originated in Scotland and is characterized by fescue grass, undulating surfaces and sandy soil, creating a course with tight fairway lies and greens that seem to morph back into the fairway without a noticeable difference in texture. In other words, you can use your putter from 50 yards off the green and roll your ball rather than chance a chip. This is a good thing for us high handicappers, and makes it more fun with a bit less risk.

Hole No. 2 will be a favorite for all levels of players. A drivable par-4, the second hole is guarded by two greenside bunkers (I found the one on the left) but is accessible playing around 240 yards downhill. It’s a fun hole with the Columbia River and the town of Brewster in full view. Beautiful.

I asked a member of the management group, OB Sports, who the target market is for Gamble Sands, and he said it’s the national and even international market as well as Seattle and Portland.

Those players that will fly into places like Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes and Chambers Bay will now put Brewster on their flight plan. At $150 per round ($130 if you walk), this course is not cheap to play. But the real question, I think, is it a value? If you put Gamble Sands on par with the aforementioned world class layouts, I think it will be regarded as a high value destination golf course for a segment of the playing population.

I loved this golf course. As I drove away considering the beauty, design and the Gebbers family, I immediately thought about making my next tee time. Shooting 43-41 had something to do with my attitude as well. A shout-out to our caddy, Shawn from Tacoma, for an outstanding job with four first-timers. Ask for him by name when you make your tee time. He’s a good one.

For us local high handicappers, the question of playing Gamble Sands will come down to expense versus value. You can argue both sides of that discussion, but I think you’ll have to play it at least once to decide what side of the coin you’ll end up on.

For me, scoring a birdie on 18 pretty much made up my mind. I love/hate this game!

See you on the first tee.

Dan Sollom can be reached at dsollom@nwi.net.

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